In this most fascinating of his trilogy about the American Empire, Johnson writes of our end, and attributes it to Militarism and the breakdown of constitutional government. He compares the imperial pathologies of Rome, Britain, and the United States.
"The collapse of the Roman Republic offers a perfect case study of how imperialism and militarism can undermine even the best defenses of a democracy”
Johnson argues that writers today have largely the same sources to understand Roman history that Shakespeare consulted in writing his plays. The question becomes how to interpret or digest Roman history.
One view is that Julius Caesar was a military populist, the leader of the mall against the Senate, and himself a tyrant.
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Historian Michael Parenti describes Caesar as a cross between Juan Peron and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Parenti understands that class warfare dominated much of Roman life: “Caesar seems not to have comprehended that in the conflict between haves and have-nots, the haves are really have-it-alls. The Roman aristocrats lambasted the palest reforms as the worst kind of thievery.”
Writing of the last years of the Roman Republic, Tom Holland shows the late Republic a model in a certain way of the United States today: our flamboyant excesses of wealth, bad taste, and arrogance as well as our national heritage of military activity, which in our case has led to the military industrial complex. Excesses in exotic cooking marked the change from a virtuous homespun early Republic. Remarkably similar also is the United States reaction to the Cold War: too close for comfort. Like Rome after the wars with Carthage, our new military doctrine demands that we become dictators to the world and stronger than anyone who might threaten us once more.
Under President Bush this vision of hegemony and superiority militarily became the official policy of the United States National Security Strategy.
To Johnson who shows how taken were the founders of our republic with Roman forms--even to using Roman names at times--the frightening lesson concerns how Empire and its inescapable companion- militarism--simply and insidiously destroys the foundations of any Republic.
Johnson sadly points out Congress voted in October 2002 to give the president the unrestricted power to use any means including military force and nuclear weapons in a preventive strike against Iraq. He could do it when he alone deemed it appropriate. It would be hard to argue that the governmental structure laid out in the Constitution of 1787 bears much relationship to the one that prevails today in Washington.
Most interesting was the history of Rome’s revolt from the Etruscan kings, which led to the Republic. Chalmers Johnson relies on Livy, Rome’s classic historian of its origins who wrote in the time of Jesus and Johnson considers to be the reliable source of the following history.
The Etruscan King’s son, Sextus, raped Lucretia the daughter of a leading Roman family. A group of aristocrats backed by the Roman citizenry revolted and expelled the Etruscan’s from Rome. In revulsion against monarchy, they created a system to prevent monarchy from occurring again. Unlike the Hebrew revulsion against Egyptian monarchy that led initially to a government purely of laws under the Judges, the clever Roman arrangement was to have a Senate of prominent and powerful citizens from whose ranks two chief executives, the Consuls, would be selected. The Consuls took turns being in charge for a month and neither could hold office for more than a year. These Consuls had tremendous power: commanding an army, interpreting the law and even passing sentences of death. After the Consul’s term was over he was given an illustrious exile: proconsul or ruler of a distant province or colony. He could not be Consul again for 10 years.
As time passed and the Empire grew, the Roman army became a professional military force. No longer was it a citizen army composed of conscripted small landowners. For centuries the all conquering Roman infantry had consisted of yeoman farmers who had left their plows behind following their magistrates obediently to war. These campaigns were short in the beginning of the Republic, but as the Empire grew they lasted many years. Their tour of duty was originally brief, less than a year. As the campaigns morphed into occupations a citizen volunteer army was no longer functional
Five hundred years later after, avenging the assassination of his uncle Julius Caesar, gaining control of the Empire himself, and executing half or more of the old Senate, Octavian appeared before a new Senate mostly hand-picked by himself. The Senators ceded most of its powers to him and bestowed on him the new title of Roman emperor. He was also made Tribune for life, the Tribune being the representative of the people who had veto power over the Senate. Thus the Roman Republic was finished, although its forms would remain for another 1400 years. In Johnson’s opinion, the Army had grown so large as to be close to unmanageable, as has ours.
There was peace in the Western world under Roman rule for 200 years. But the characteristics of this peace depended on who was the emperor: madmen like Caligula or Nero, dubious characters like Claudius, or the great Stoic Marcus Antonius. As Johnston sees it the fundamental destruction of the Roman Empire came from the professionalization of a large standing army in order to defend the Empire leading to invincible new sources of power within the Roman social system.
Service in the Armed Forces of the United States has not been a universal male obligation of citizenship since 1973. Our new professional army is in part a response to the difficulties that many people find in advancing themselves. Civilian life makes finding decent employment quite challenging these days. Getting steady pay, good housing, free universal, comprehensive medical benefits, education, and relief from racial discrimination etc. makes military life appealing to some. Even if the benefits differ between reserve and volunteer, enlisted, active duty if you are from the inner city where schools are poor, and parents are poor models for success the armed forces appear to present a valuable alternative to unemployment, low education and decaying social opportunities.
Johnson, seems to be confusing effects with causes in part. That is, the Roman ruling class had increased its power as it taxed and then displaced the farmers and the people of Rome. The ruling class needed the Army. What to do with its own people? Give them bread and circuses, like our welfare and TV soap opera, fake reality comedy, and obsessive sports. The Empire increasingly became the important source of wealth and power for the ruling class, or if the term ruling class is to old leftist a term for you, we might use Hackett Fischer’s term, which transcends all of written history: “those with positional advantages.”
Applying this to Roman history, taking advantage of their high position, Senators accumulated property, often-public lands. They taxed the yeomanry in ways that crippled them, but left the great families still powerful. In this situation a military leader like Julius Caesar, could represent the hopes of a resentful, unfocused, and increasingly impotent people of Rome against the Senators. No longer a people with the habits of successfully managing their own lives they looked for a savior and found two: Caesar Augustus and later Jesus Christ. Each had his successors in later Rome: the Emperor’s and the Pope’s. Neither required the people’s intelligence or will.
“The enthusiasts of the British Empire systematically prettify a history of the British Empire in order to make it an acceptable model for the United States today."
Johnson does a good job refuting the arguments that the British Empire is a good model for America’s new empire. Johnson has fun quoting Niall Ferguson who argues that the British Empire was motivated by a sincere belief that spreading commerce, Christianity, and civilization was as much in the interest of Britain’s colonial subjects as in the interest of the Imperial Metropole itself.
Johnson points out that from 1757 to 1947, there was no increase at all in India’s per capita income. Between 30 and 50 million Indians perished in famines and plagues brought on by British misrule. From 1872 to 1921, the life expectancy of ordinary Indians fell by a staggering 20 percent.
Not usually reported by enthusiasts for our new empire who see the British Empire as a model, during the 19th century is that Britain financed its empire by selling opium. George Orwell’s father, from an aristocratic family fallen on hard times, was an opium agent third class when he started his career in the late 19th century in India. Fortunately for the family, he succeeded in his career rising to opium agent first class shortly before the First World War and his retirement!
The idea that the British Empire conferred economic benefits on any other groups than British capitalists is pure ideology in Johnson’s opinion - like the beliefs of Leonid Brezhnev in Marxism-Leninism, or George Bush’s belief that free markets are synonymous with political freedom.
England destroyed India’s manual textile industry. The British first raised tariffs against the Indian products - India having the world’s largest manual textile industry, and then demanded free trade when the alternative industrial mode of production had been perfected in England. The result was poverty and colonial dependence for India.
Johnson sums up a great deal of historical evidence to show that there is a strong correlation between being on the receiving end of imperialism and being made weak and backward. The nations that avoided the fates of India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines did so by throwing off all foreign rule early like the United States or by modernizing militarily to hold off the imperialists like Japan.
He points out that as late as the 1960's the British were attempting genocide on the entire Kikuyu population in Kenya, whom the British contended were not freedom fighters but savages of the lowest order. The British burned its colonial records relating to Kenya on the eve of leaving the country in 1963. But the facts remain: Only 100 Europeans including settlers were killed, some 1,800 pro-British Kikuyu died at the hands of the Mau Mau. The British reported more than 11,000 Mau Mau were killed in action. One author that Johnson quotes in great detail argues that perhaps hundreds of thousands of the Kikuyu were left dead. Johnson’s position is close to that of Hannah Arendt’s, the British Empire failed,
“because of the dichotomy between the nation-states legal principles and the methods needed to oppress other people permanently. This failure was neither necessary nor due to ignorance or incompetence. The British imperialists knew very well that ‘administrative massacres’ could keep India in bondage, but they also knew that public opinion at home would not stand for such measures. Imperialism could have been a success if the nation-state had been willing to pay the price, to commit suicide, and transform itself into a tyranny. It is one of the glories of Europe and especially of Great Britain that she preferred to liquidate the Empire.”
Both Johnson and Arendt leave out of their discussion centrally important political and social class causes. It was not simply the people of Great Britain who opposed the Empire: it was the working class organized into the Labour Party that fought against the Empire under the banner of the ideas of socialist internationalism. That movement is no longer, but should be remembered for this important accomplishment.
It was Winston Churchill, the conservative, the defender of “Capitalism” who said, “I did not become Prime Minister to liquidate the British Empire.”
At the end of World War II India, the linchpin of the Empire, was granted its freedom under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, from the British Labour party. Left out also is the fact that to some extent the working classes of the imperialist powers were bought off for a long time by the privileges and the surplus of Empire. It required the development of a different kind of consciousness and a different will amongst advanced workers to eliminate Imperial privileges.
Presently, U.S. workers have enjoyed similar benefits from globalism, as we like to call the current economic system.
The economic historian, Hackett Fischer, does a much better job understanding the influence of class by not naming the ruling class “capitalist,” “feudal,” or “bureaucratic-collectivist” as if they reflect some pre-determined and inevitable historical forces as did many of Marx's followers, if not he himself. To Hackett Fischer, who generalizes so cautiously, the ruling class of each of the last four epochs or waves from 1200 to now was different. What they had in common was that they were the ruling class, and could use their positional advantages from control of capital, or land to extract an increasing share of the production, the material goods, the honors, and the privileges available in the society of their time. To this I add that of government bureaucratic position, then as now.
In the United States, the pay of a high government bureaucratic officer is unremarkable; but when he moves after retirement, to the contractor whom he met while negotiating government bids, he often makes a fortune. In Africa, bureaucrats who allow squatters to settle on public lands, end up collecting rent from them, in what becomes a great - and greatly awful - slum. Since there are so many, it adds quite a bit of money to their somewhat low by Western standards, bureaucratic salary. And then there is the drug trade, offering so much to the officials of so many Latin American countries.
Properly armed with these insights, it is interesting to turn to re-examine the ideas of Chalmers Johnson once again.
He is able to tease out some of the causes of our current transformation into a military imperialist and increasingly parasitical society. He blames it in our case, as well as the Romans, on a fearful democracy that increasingly transforms itself into a military state worrying about distant dangers that may be real or fanciful.
Additionally there are new insights based on political psychology. That is new sub-disciplines reflecting the work of Ernest Becker in his prize-winning book The Denial of Death. Followers of Becker have shown that when people’s defense against thinking about their death is diminished, as has been the case with the “war on terrorism,” it makes them, said briefly, more fearful and willing to turn over power to charismatic - dictatorial leaders. Certainly the Psy-War propaganda that Bush used to justify the invasion of Iraq to the world qualified as this for masses of Americans. As a practicing psychologist I can attest that I had patients afraid to go to the malls to shop as a direct result of these scare tactics.
These fears, for the Romans like Americans contributed to the creation of an unwieldy and stagnant state yoked to a military greater than needed by military necessity. Meanwhile, Rome enjoyed spoils of war, and so do we. The British Empire arose more explicitly as a way to enrich its sponsors as well as the state apparatus. At the end of WW II there was increasing self-confidence on the part of ordinary people. In the post war world of the Four Freedoms and the tremendously advanced technology people now thought they could make a living in other ways and the sins of Empire had become increasingly clear. It was a period when the English people were asserting once again their Democratic powers, feeling strong because British Capitalism had depended as never before on public support to defeat the Nazi menace. Thus, for the first time a reform political party like the Labor Party could counter the Conservative Party and its imperialistic kind of nationalism that for so long had held sway over the homeland. It remains to be seen if the US public shows a similar sense of courage and self-reliance.
Dr. Stephen Bindman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, author of LOVE WITHOUT ILLUSIONS. “Imperialism and/or Democracy” is from his forthcoming book, PSEUDO-CAPITALISM: Socialism for the Rich, due out this fall.
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